What to do about tactical nuclear weapons

By Pavel Podvig | February 25, 2010

Since the United States and Russia might soon sign a new treaty that limits their strategic nuclear weapons, it’s natural to wonder about Washington and Moscow’s tactical nuclear weapons, which the treaty won’t cover. The hope is that the momentum for a nuclear-weapon-free world, the renewed U.S.-Russian negotiations, and the ongoing review of the U.S. nuclear posture and NATO strategic concept will help make progress on reducing nonstrategic nuclear arsenals–an issue that has been largely neglected for more than a decade.

NATO should admit that if its members cannot trust each other unless they are held together by a nuclear booby trap, the alliance has significant problems.”

A primary reason for this neglect is the charged political atmosphere that accompanies any discussion of tactical nuclear weapons. For Washington’s part, tactical nuclear weapons always have been an instrument of assuring its European and Asian allies of its commitment to protect them against aggression. Moscow, on the other hand, claims that its tactical weapons compensate for the relative decline of its conventional forces. So while both sides have been quietly reducing their tactical forces–according to the Bulletin‘s Nuclear Notebook, during the last decade Russia reduced the number of its nonstrategic warheads by about one-half and the United States by more than two-thirds–neither side has been willing to engage in formal talks about these reductions.

However, change is in the air. While the presence of U.S. nonstrategic weapons in Europe (based in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey specifically) has always had nongovernmental critics, now some of these individual governments are raising questions as well. Germany was the first to break ranks; its officials began speaking favorably about the withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe several years ago. And last November, Berlin officially committed itself to the removal of U.S. weapons from German territory. Similarly, in early February, the Polish and Swedish foreign ministers urged both the United States and Russia to reduce the number of tactical weapons in Europe. Most recently, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway announced that they will demand that the United States remove the weapons from Europe.

Nonetheless, there are still influential players who want the weapons to remain in Europe. Their key argument is that if the U.S. nuclear weapons are removed, NATO members would no longer trust Washington’s commitment to protecting Europe. Such a move, the argument goes, will lead to all kinds of negative consequences–from triggering “a corrosive internal debate” within NATO to Turkey deciding to pursue its own nuclear weapon capability.

These arguments usually are taken quite seriously. But in the end, NATO should admit that if its members cannot trust each other unless they are held together by a nuclear booby trap, the alliance has significant problems. Some of these problems are already beginning to surface. For instance, the internal debate about the strength of Washington’s commitment to NATO members has been underway for some time, and it’s as “corrosive” as predicted. What isn’t clear is why anyone should be scared of it; NATO is supposed to be the type of alliance that welcomes debate, not shies away from it.

Any conversation about nuclear weapons in Europe cannot avoid mention of the Russian nuclear arsenal. The United States is believed to have about 200 nuclear bombs deployed in Europe, a fraction of the 500 total tactical weapons in its active arsenal. Conversely, Russia is estimated to have about 2,000 active tactical nuclear warheads, most of which are probably in the European portion of the country. Moscow has taken the position that any dialogue about these weapons should begin only after every U.S. nuclear weapon resides within its borders and its borders only, putting the onus on Washington and NATO. But if the United States actually removes its weapons from Europe, would Russia be ready to respond constructively?

Certainly a reduction in the number of Russian tactical weapons is in order. Yet more than likely, Moscow would argue that the disparity in tactical weapons between it and Washington is there to compensate for the weakness of its conventional forces, spurring all kinds of issues related to NATO expansion and the often rocky Russia-NATO relationship. Even those who want the U.S. weapons removed from Europe usually assume that reductions in the Russian tactical nuclear force will depend on solving “the conventional military imbalances” between Moscow and NATO. Thus, finding an arrangement that takes into account the capabilities of conventional forces, tactical nuclear weapons, and their strategic counterparts will be nearly impossible. To complicate matters further, Russia might want to add missile defense to the equation. Given the complexity of the task, some might decide that the issue of tactical nuclear weapons should be left alone.

I believe, however, that the task of dealing with tactical nuclear weapons would be much easier if we take them for what they are–weapons with no military value whatsoever–instead of trying to balance them with everything else. There is more agreement on this issue than you might think. If there is any consensus in NATO’s “corrosive internal debate,” it’s that the U.S. weapons in Europe are irrelevant militarily. As for Russia, despite its rhetoric, inertia left over from the Cold War seems to be the reason for the current composition of its tactical nuclear forces. (How else can one explain the more than 600 warheads allocated to the country’s air defense?) Moscow already has consolidated its weapons at centralized storage facilities, so they aren’t normally deployed with the units that are supposed to operate them. In an important development, the new Russian military doctrine doesn’t include any specific mission for its tactical nuclear weapons. Of course, nobody in Russia is ready to get rid of them just yet, but it does indicate that the Russians realize that the utility of these weapons is highly questionable, even if they aren’t ready to publicly admit it.

One possible first step would be for Moscow and Washington to withdraw their tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, moving them to centralized storage facilities deep inside their national territories. (Two former German security officials made a similar proposal in early February.) Once such an agreement was reached, other aspects of the deal could be discussed. For instance, Russia and the United States (or maybe NATO) could agree on verification measures that would certify that no weapons have been left behind and implement measures that would make the withdrawal irreversible. Eventually, they would have to make a commitment to eliminating these weapons altogether, but securing them at storage facilities would be a reasonable first step. As for transparency, while ideally Washington and Moscow would declare their holdings, this isn’t an absolutely necessary element of the arrangement–at least not at the first stage, when it’s more important to make sure that tactical nuclear weapons are safely and securely isolated.

Such an agreement won’t be easy. But if the European NATO members are persistent in their calls for withdrawal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe and the Obama administration holds strong against criticism from defense hawks, then it just might come together.

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